Among the many bands who performed at the 1974 Sunbury Festival was an unknown group called Skyhooks. In the mid-afternoon heat on that Australia Day weekend, with their makeup running and the sound system a mess, they were taunted by hecklers.
Lead singer Steve Hill became involved in a shouting match with a member of the audience. Uncertain of his role as an assertive lead singer in a Rock & Roll band that was breaking new ground, he quit the band after Sunbury.
His replacement, Graeme ‘Shirley’ Strachan, showed no such misgivings or inhibitions. Their debut album, Living In The Seventies, remained in the charts for 40 weeks and became the top selling Australian album of the decade.
It was the first big selling album for Michael Gudinski’s new Mushroom label. Skyhooks had become an instant success.
At a time when the charts were dominated by English glam rock acts like T. Rex, David Bowie, Gary Glitter and Alvin Stardust – with their theatrics, makeup and platform shoes – Skyhooks took this trend and pushed it to the limit . . . and they did so with a sense of irony.
They set out to be visually entertaining and to put on a show for the audience, but there was always an element of parody and self-deprecation.
They were spunky enough to make the teenagers in the Countdown audience scream and yet rebellious enough to impress older fans as well.
Their appeal to teenyboppers never led them to compromise their music or dilute their satirical, socially aware lyrics.
Skyhooks were original, flamboyant and unmistakably Australian. They were also a first-class live band and paid close attention to the trappings of showmanship, including props, backdrops and costumes.
They also had a distinctive musical style with two lead guitars playing counter pointed riffs with the bass taking a more leading role in the sound.
Skyhooks slightly menacing bad-boy image, reflected in Red Symons’ scowling face and in Greg’s provocative words, was enhanced when six of the tracks on their first album were banned on commercial radio, adding to the band’s notoriety and fuelling massive sales. One of these songs, You Just Like Me Cos I’m Good In Bed, became the first song officially broadcast by the ABC’s defiant Sydney alternative radio station,2JJ.
Skyhooks emerged at the same time as Prime Minister Gough Whitlam was encouraging a fresh style of nationalism that liberated many Australians from feelings of cultural inferiority.
Skyhooks were the first band to be unashamedly Australian in their songs. They didn’t perform covers but sang meaningful songs in the local idiom. They not only sang about specific Australian places – Carlton, Toorak, Balwyn – they sounded Australian.
While other bands clung to the late 60s hippie ethos and political idealism, Skyhooks were cynical and realistic.
They sang about the red tiled roofs of Sydney and the red and yellow Twisties packets familiar to movie-goers.
Savvy in an age of innocence, they courted controversy, singing about orgasms and masturbation, and their stage act featured a giant phallus which ejaculated on stage. They were also calculating in their approach to the media and the music press loved them.
By the beginning of 1975 Skyhooks had cracked Sydney – no easy task for a band from Melbourne at that time.
The Living In The Seventies album was #1 in the charts. A 2JJ free concert at the Sydney Opera House attracted 8,000 people.
But the band realised they could only go so far in Australia before they began to go around in circles or become overexposed to local audiences.
Seeking international success, they gained an American record deal with Mercury but were required to spend their advance to finance a US tour.
Ironically the same quality of Australianess which had made Skyhooks so important at home probably hindered their potential for success overseas.
The band kept going until the end of the decade, but not without some line-up changes. Guitarist Red Symons was the first to leave, replaced by Bob Spencer (pictured at left, ex-Finch) in 1977.
Tony Williams took over the lead vocals when Shirley left in 1979. By this time the band had stopped using costumes and make-up, and with a new lead singer were sounding very different as well.
Although they disbanded in 1980, Skyhooks reformed in 1990 for a national tour and scored a surprise #1 national hit with Jukebox In Siberia.
During the 90s, Red Symons and Shirley Strmakeupecame familiar faces on national Australian television. Tragically, a freak accident while piloting a helicopter claimed Strachan’s life in 2001.
Graeme ‘Shirley’ Strachan
Bob ‘Bongo’ Starkey